When writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons conceived the comic book Watchmen — a dark, complex deconstruction of what it is to be a superhero — it was not only to tell a gripping tale but also to showcase the unique merits of the comic book as a medium. It was created to be unfilmable, not that that stopped Hollywood from trying. However, where others — including the likes of Terry Gilliam and Paul Greengrass — failed to adapt the most celebrated graphic novel of all time, Zack Snyder, best known for 300 (another comic book adaptation), has succeeded. Of sorts.

Fans of the comic book will be pleased with much of Snyder's refreshingly reverent adaptation. The six main characters, the titular Watchmen, are all accurately portrayed (including the anatomically correct superpowered blue-skinned nudist Dr Manhattan), and each of their stories is given good weight within the overarching tale of the hunt for a killer of masked vigilantes in a world on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. The film's visual design too is stunning, striking the perfect balance between the lush colour palette of the comic with an outlandish but believably real alternate Earth. Much of the comic book's elegant dialogue has been lifted straight off the page, while fans of the ink-blot masked Rorschach will be pleased to note that he is the outstanding character here too.

All good so far, and yet ...

Those looking for Iron Man-like thrills or The Dark Knight-style tension will surely be left under-whelmed by the experience. Watchmen is not a taut thrill-ride; the lengthy scenes of dialogue and flashback give it a pace that while never dull (and in a film that runs at two hours and 40 minutes that's a blessing) is never truly exciting either. To counteract this Snyder has upped the fisticuff count, but because Watchmen is not a traditional comic book action film - if anything it's an anti-superhero film — the fight sequences often feel awkwardly forced into the narrative. Equally, while each of the main characters' back stories and motivations are explored, it seems oddly cold in tone with a lack of an emotional connection to any of them - the frustrated Batman-esque Nite Owl, the most humane of the group, perhaps the only exception.

There are other more minor quibbles and as frustrating as it often is, Watchmen remains a well-polished whodunnit that has plenty to cheer and, unlike those who were left weeping into their popcorn following the woeful adaptation of Moore's other great comic book opus, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, fans should walk away content that Snyder hasn't made a pig's ear of their hallowed text. It falls far short of the multi-layered complexities and emotional themes of Moore and Gibbons' original story, but then we knew that it would anyway, didn't we? See it for sure, just make sure you pick up the graphic novel on the way home.
SECOND OPINION | Duncan Bain ****
Watchmen The Movie is not Watchmen The Graphic Novel. Admittedly there are a wealth of similarities, but to use the two for a basis of comparison would be as useful as, say, a photograph of oxygen for a suffocating man. So, rather than whine about the differences, let us concentrate on the long-gestating, big screen spectacular that millions of normal people will be bracing themselves to swallow popcorn in front of sometime in the next month.

I must concede that I’m ambivalent about Snyder as a director. He has a reputation for borrowing the good bits from other films, so the marketing of him being “the visionary director of 300” seems somewhat hyperbolic. That being said, if you are planning on making a film that hinges on translating one visual medium to another then you could do a lot worse than hire him for the job. One of the film’s greatest strengths is that it is unquestionably hyper-coloured, over-stylised and a beautiful spectacle to behold. The alterna-’85 is drenched in electric colour - bright yellows, deep purples, and most notably Dr Manhattan’s iridescent blue glow. When the film’s subject matter takes a dark turn, the palette does too, most notably in Rorschach’s flashbacks to the night his alter ego “died”. For my money, I always had a soft spot for the sequences on Mars and nothing’s changed there — Manhattan’s Fortress of Solitude in particular comes to life in a clockworky way that it never could on page.

Watchmen follows the source material’s narrative structure - essentially 20-minute sequences that concentrate on each respective character’s individual story, increasingly overlapping until a climactic half hour where maguffins and monologuing are introduced. I should also mention the excellent title sequence where every picture says a thousand words, during which we are introduced to the concept of this parallel universe and its rules. Unfortunately, there are some jarring and incongruous musical cues that rankle largely due to them being a bit obvious. The use of Pop Factor favourite Hallelujah in particular brought the biggest unintentional laugh of the night. That being said, a muzak version of a certain Tears for Fears song playing in Adrian Veidt’s office was a subtle and pleasing gag.

So, is the film all under-to-over cranked speed effects? Not by a long shot, although there is a fair amount of it going on. One quote I read said the slo-mo was used to emphasise moments that in the book would have been splash-page pictures, and I can sort of buy into that: essentially there’s a change of grammar between the two media and to moan about that would be as petty as calling out a superhero film for not being realistic enough. As seems to be the emerging trend, for an action film, there’s surprisingly little action, but when it does come, the fight scenes really do earn the film’s 18 certificate.

Personally, I’ll be fascinated to see how the film sells, beyond the inevitable massive opening weekend — its is a curate’s egg of a seemingly non-mainstream subject matter that has somehow chanced upon a massive budget and relentless marketing campaign. Some wits have already described it as “the Blade Runner of the Noughties” and not without good reason. If you’re willing to buy into superhero movies in general then I’d urge you to get down to the picture house (preferably an Imax, if you are able — it is most choice) and immerse yourself in an awe-inspiring new world ... and make sure you go to the loo before you go to your seat: with a near 3 hour runtime, you bladder will be nagging you, but you won’t want to leave your seat for fear of missing a single scene.

Official UK Site
Watchmen at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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